Dream start fails to materialise as Ireland's limitations exposed


GROUP C REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 1 CROATIA 3:IN THE bars of Poznan the Irish supporters sang their hearts out during the 36 hours or so that preceded last night’s kick-off, and the only complaint a Croat was heard to make was that they only seemed to have one song. After watching their team being beaten in this opening game of their first European Championship campaign in 24 years they found it in themselves to raise their voices again but You’ll never beat the Irish was not to be heard now. Rather the stadium resounded briefly to the Fields of Athenry before the voices of their victorious rivals took over.

It was in truth a bad night for Giovanni Trapattoni’s side and those who followed them and the Italian will have to restore belief that they have much better in them if this latest outing on a big stage isn’t to be by far the most disappointing yet.

The scale of the defeat will certainly dampen morale with a team that had come here having conceded just three goals in 14 games as they conceded as many again here in just 48 minutes.

Trapattoni, though, will have little option but to accentuate the positives. In this case they amounted to a decent equaliser by Sean St Ledger from a fine Aiden McGeady set-piece delivery 19 minutes in, huge efforts by the likes of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Glenn Whelan. There was also as a feisty attempt to rescue the situation at 3-1 that was powered by some extent by Keith Andrews pushing forward more and should have been rewarded with at least a penalty after which, they will feel, anything might have happened.

The difficulty was that by then they had given themselves a mountain to climb as a result of their inability to more effectively contain their opponents, especially Luka Modric who always seemed to find a yard or two of space, and then defending poorly at key moments.

Few would have cared beforehand how last ditch the Irish resistance in the last third became as long as Trapattoni’s men managed to keep their opponents at bay the way they had in other big games. Here though, there was a touch more mayhem than Moscow about things as the Croatians were gifted opportunities at the start and finish of the opening half.

Croatia’s first came after just three minutes, their second three minutes before the break and neither can have made pleasant viewing for the manager when he reviews the game afterwards.

There had been talk beforehand that the Croats would target Stephen Ward in particular and the Dubliner certainly had an uncomfortable evening. To be fair, though, he wasn’t the only one with Ireland’s defending uncertain and slightly slipshod as passes were repeatedly misjudged and disaster only narrowly averted.

Ward and Andrews should probably, between them, have prevented Darijo Srna’s cross for the first goal but there certainly should have been a team-mate somewhere closer to Mario Mandzukic who had time to lose then regain his footing before getting away an unchallenged header towards the bottom right corner that Shay Given got a touch to but not nearly enough to stop.

Having equalised and then battled hard to stay on terms for 30 minutes, the Irish gifted Bilic’s side a fortuitous second goal.

The problems started when Ward misplaced what should have been a straightforward pass inside to Glenn Whelan and the rest of the back four suddenly found itself scrambling to recover at the expense of a corner. From that, the ball came to Modric whose shot reached only the pack on the edge of the area. At that stage, though Ward was seemingly clipped as he attempted to clear and his miscued clearance fell instead to Nikica Jelavic, who would have been offside had Modric’s original ball reached him. Jelavic coolly lifted the ball over the helpless Given.

It was a cruel ending to a rough half for the Irish and within three minutes of the second half starting they were in worse trouble with Mandzukic turning a cross from the left onto the foot of the right hand post from where it ricocheted off Given and into the net.

The Irish players, like their fans, tried to pick themselves up but a comeback always seemed a long-shot. It would have been rather more imaginable had Keane got the penalty he should have just over an hour in when Gordon Schildenfeld took his legs inside the box. But perhaps the Dutch referee’s decision to wave the claim away was influenced by the fact that the Croats had been calling for some time for play to be stopped or the Irish to put the ball out so that the prone Mandzukic could receive attention.

In the hope of sparking a revival, Trapattoni replaced his strikers and Simon Cox came on for Aiden McGeady but the shape stayed essentially the same, albeit with Andrews pushing on a bit and adding some extra presence to the attacking side of Ireland’s game.

Late on the midfielder had Ireland’s best chance to pull one back with a header from a corner that flew just wide. By then, however, the Croats had done enough to secure the win and Ireland were left to start mentally rewriting pre-tournament scripts which said if they lost their first game they would go out.